Saturday, July 26, 2014

What a Difference Eleven Years Makes

By 2003, I had several years of genealogy research under my belt but all of that research had been in US records. With the exception of the Eastern European towns mentioned on ship manifests, and a few family stories, I had no evidence confirming where my ancestors came from.

This all changed in 2003 when a fellow researcher pointed out that the 1895 marriage record of my great-grandparents, Jeruchim Bergzon and Dobrusza Jablon (Ruben and Dora Berger in the US) was listed in the Jewish Records Indexing (JRI)-Poland database. At first I told her that she was wrong, that they were from Lozdzieje, Lithuania, not Poland. She then explained to me that the pre-WWI birth, marriage, and death (BMD) records for Lozdzieje, which is located close to the Polish border, are located in the Suwalki branch of the Polish State Archives (PSA) because the two countries shared a long history and the Suwalki administrative district crossed the current border between the two countries. She was right; this is the record for my great-grandparents marriage.

This, of course, opened my eyes to many more family records. I began ordering most of the Bergzon and Jablon (and all spelling variations) records listed in the JRI-Poland database for the town of Lozdzieje. Some were with the PSA, others were on LDS microfilm. Upon receipt, I had them translated into English. I also subscribed to  Landsmen, the publication of the Suwalk-Lomza Interest Group and ordered all of the back issues. Before long, the Jablon branch of my family tree became the first branch to be well populated with "old country" people and relevant details. I was even able to trace a side branch to the US.

The Bergzon branch was another story. In the 1895 marriage record, Jeruchim's father was listed as Szolom Bergzon, deceased. I searched the JRI-Poland database for a record of the birth and marriage of Szolom. I also searched for any reference to Szolom as the father of other children whose births were listed in the database. Nothing. I was stuck. Without his parents names, I could be sure I was looking at the right Szolom.

A couple of years later, I was in contact with several other researchers trying to find a connection between the Bergzons of Lozdzieje and the Berksons of nearby Mariampole. We couldn't find the connection in the records so we tried DNA testing. My mother's first cousin, Jason Berger, was kind enough to swab his cheek for a Y-DNA test. No luck. The DNA tests didn't show a match. It's just a coincidence that the names are similar.

Since then, I've always viewed the Bergzon branch of my family tree as a brick wall. That is until a few days ago when I typed "Jeruchim Bergzon" into the search field on The Ancestry database now includes many of the records from the JRI-Poland and JewishGen databases but I was more interested in seeing whether any other Ancestry family trees included my great-grandfather. I found one. I immediately recognized the name of the tree creator as one of the Berkson researchers. I contacted him and he told me that he had created this little family tree showing my ancestors several years ago when he was still trying to find the connection between our families.

As I examined his family tree, I immediately noticed that he had made an assumption about Szolom Bergzon that I wasn't experienced enough to make back in 2003: it's likely that the Szmul Bergsohn that I see born in Lozdzieje in 1852 is my Szolom. My research was blown wide open. Of the 25 Lozdzieje BMD records in the JRI-Poland database that include the surname Bergzon (or similar spelling), 23 fit into my family tree. It's likely that the other 2 records also fit into my family tree but there's a gap in the data and I don't see the connection.

Now it's time to enter all of this new information into the family tree. I also have the family names of the women in my direct family line who married into the Bergzon family so I can research those as well. At least one of the other Bergzon cousins came to America according to this other researcher. Ironically, while he and I have no connection on the Bergzon/Berkson lines, he told me that one of my Bergzon's married one of his cousins in Kansas. Further proof that we are all related.

Unfortuantely, Jason Berger passed away in 2008. I think he would have enjoyed learning this new information.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Just A Wall - Chapter Three

Monday morning, second week of school. Wanda and I stepped out of our buildings at the same moment and began the short walk to school. We’ve known each other for many years. Her parents are very strict and make her spend so much time with her studies and practicing her violin that she has little free time to spend with friends. That probably explains why she’s so shy. Wanda is three inches shorter than me and a little plump, taking after her mother. She wears her hair in a ponytail and her parents never let her wear makeup.

“I won’t be able to walk home from school with you this week,” I said. “My mother needs my help with a project and she’ll be picking me up at school.”

“What kind of project?”

“She told me not to tell anyone yet. I promise to tell you as soon as I’m able.”

“A top secret project? Sounds exciting.”

It isn’t exciting. With Max joining the army, everything I had overheard my parents discussing about the war seems more real. I don’t know what to expect. My parents were young during the Great War, but they remember it. I remember my grandparent’s stories from when I was younger, but over the years they stopped telling them. I’m actually glad my parents decided to begin preparing for the worst. This gives me something to focus on instead of worrying about guns and bombs.

Mother met me after school and we went to a market I had never been to before. She decided that it was best to spread our purchases across several markets so we don’t draw any attention to ourselves. The list included candles, matches, rice, flour, sugar, bacon, canned goods, tea, coffee, salt and other seasonings, kerosene lamps and oil, soap, shampoo, light bulbs, aspirin, first aid supplies, and empty bottles for water storage. There's a note at the bottom of the list to keep an eye out for other items that she hadn’t thought of. My mother brought a small shopping cart with her, and when we arrived at the market we started filling the cart. The clerk was watching us, wondering what we were up to, so we hurried to finish our shopping.

The cart was heavy so we both pulled it along the sidewalk. Several people looked at us but Mother just smiled, nodded, said “good afternoon,” and kept on walking. We finally arrived home and unloaded the cart. While I was at school my mother had cleared a lot of space in the kitchen cabinets and pantry.

“Your father will be bringing home some empty boxes he found at the office," she said. "He’ll also make sure we have extra money and our valuables stowed away in a secure hiding place.”

After we finished, she prepared the ingredients for tonight’s soup dinner, set the pot on the stove to stew, and sat at the kitchen table going over her lists, figuring out what we already had and what we still need to purchase. “You should finish your homework before dinner is ready,” she said.

Father arrived home with a couple of empty boxes. He decided to just take one or two each day so no one would notice. He had also stopped by the liquor store and purchased a case of wine. My mother asked why he was wasting our money on wine and he said that she’ll be glad later to have it. He put the case of wine on the floor in the back of Max’s closet. Since Max wasn’t here, we ccould use his room for storage, putting items mainly in the closet to keep them out of the sight of any visitors.

And that’s how the week continued…school, shopping, unloading, homework. By Thursday we seemed to be ready for just about anything. Mother was still going over her lists again and again, worried that we missed something. Shortly after my parents went to bed, I went to the kitchen for a drink of water. I passed their bedroom on the way back to my room and I heard my mother crying.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Two

A loud sound jolted me awake and I ran into the kitchen to see what happened. It was a bowl crashing to the floor.

“Sorry to wake you,” my mother said. “I was just trying to reorganize these cabinets.”

I growled and went back to bed. Saturday is the only day of the week I get to sleep late. No matter how hard I tried, though, I couldn’t doze off again. I just hid under the blankets for a long while thinking about what my parents had discussed last night…war. My history teacher had told us that the Great War was also nicknamed “the war to end all wars.” I hope that’s true, but after seeing my father’s face last night, I wonder if it is. I heard a floorboard creek and pulled down the blanket to see my mother standing there. She sat on the edge of my bed

“I have something very important to discuss with you,” she said before repeating what I had overheard she and my father discussing last night. “We need to prepare, just in case. I need your help next week to reorganize the kitchen pantry and closets to make room for emergency supplies and then we’ll quietly go about purchasing supplies without drawing attention to ourselves.” I nodded in agreement. “You should get dressed. After lunch we’re going to Uncle Jozef’s house for the birthday party.”


I'm surprised anyone heard the doorbell. We could hear the noise of the party as soon as we reached the front steps. Aunt Rose opened the door with a big smile. “Come in. We were wondering when you would get here.”

“Hello, Rose,” Mother said, kissing her on the cheek and handing her the tin of cookies. “You know that yellow dress is one of my favorites.”

Rose gave me a big hug. “Helena, don’t you look lovely in that blue blouse.”

“Thank you, it was a birthday gift.”

“You're all growing up so fast. I can’t believe my little Viktor is eight years old already. Come in, come in, everyone else is here.”

The greetings always seemed to take forever. Uncle Jozef, my father’s younger brother was the next to greet us and then Father’s parents, Andrej and Emilie, Em for short. The other guests were all friends and Aunt Rose’s family. And weaving among the adults were Viktor and his friends, treating the crowd as a giant maze formed for their amusement. My father managed to grab Viktor to wish him a happy birthday but he soon wriggled away to catch up with his friends. There aren’t any girls my age so I stayed close to the women, who always seemed to gather in the kitchen. They mainly discussed children and cooking, so the conversation didn’t hold much interest for me.

The men are in the den, sitting in a tight group with my father and Uncle Jozef at the center. They were speaking in low voices so I wasn’t able to hear what they were saying. I know that my father wanted to speak to Uncle Jozef and Grandpa Andrej about the failing talks with the Germans, so I assumed that’s what they were discussing. There wasn’t any of the normal joking among them, and they all had concerned looks on their faces. My mother noticed me trying to overhear the men’s conversation and gave me an assured smile. She knew I was worried.

“Why don’t you make some potato pierogies for dinner tomorrow night? We’ll stop at the market after church,” Mother commented.

“That’s a good idea. I haven’t made them in a long time. Maybe we can make a pot roast?”

“Your father will like that. And Max will be joining us. I’m sure he’ll enjoy a home cooked meal. I’ll bake a cheesecake.”

I nodded, feeling a little more relaxed now, and went back to helping the women set out the buffet for supper. There are too many guests for a sit-down meal. One small table was set up for the younger children, and I began serving them. Hopefully they’ll sit still long enough to clean their plates. The men descended on the buffet like they had been starved all day. They filled their plates and went back to their chairs to finish their top-secret discussion. Now the women can make their plates and enjoy a quiet meal in the kitchen.

As usual, Aunt Rose went overboard with the birthday cake. Viktor is their only child, and he’s spoiled. The cake was made at a local bakery that’s well-known for its wedding cakes, but they always overdo the frosting. Aunt Rose brought out the cake with its burning candles as everyone sang “Happy Birthday.” Uncle Jozef tried to keep Viktor in his seat. After the song was finished, Viktor made a wish, blew out the candles and then promptly dragged a finger across the cake to get a taste of the frosting.

“Oh, Viktor,” Aunt Rose cried. “You couldn’t have waited one minute for me to slice the cake? Now you sit there quietly and wait. Jozef, hand me the knife.”

Aunt Rose was horrified, but Uncle Jozef tried to hide the smirk on his face. Viktor had a smug little grin because he knew his mother wouldn’t stay mad at him for long. He did sit quietly and waited for his piece of cake. Aunt Rose cut slices for his friends first so they could go to their little table and eat while the adults had cake, coffee, and enjoyed the other deserts that the guests had brought. I don’t really like frosting, so I went straight for my mother’s cookies.  A few cookies with a cup of tea and I’m happy.

I was glad when the party ended. It’s nice to see the family, but I needed some fresh air. My parents and I walked the seven blocks to our apartment in silence, enjoying the last remnants of summer warmth. Others were out also enjoying an evening stroll. The streets are well lit, and I always felt safe, even after sundown. This section of the city is safe, and it’s rare that anyone has to worry about being robbed or attacked. It isn’t unheard of, so we still had to be alert, but I didn’t feel nervous. As we arrived home, I noticed Wanda looking down from her window and I waved to her.


After Sunday church services we always liked to take the long way home. Many of our neighbors did as well. As we strolled through the park, and then along the surrounding streets, everyone smiled and nodded at each other. As we were getting close to home, my mother told my father than she and I would stop at the market to buy what we need for dinner. My father wanted to stop at the newsstand anyway to pick up the Sunday newspapers so he said he'd meet us at home. Most businesses are closed on Sunday but there is one Jewish-owned market two blocks from the park that's open on Sundays. We shop at that market only when we need last minute items because there is a larger market closer to our apartment.

My mother worked through her mental grocery list as we approached the market. It was crowded so she told me the few things I needed to gather and she went off in the other direction to find the other items. I’ve always felt a little out of place here. I know most of the other customers are Jewish. A few were speaking Polish, but many speak Yiddish. It sounds similar to the German I learned in school last year, but I don’t know enough German to even attempt to understand it. I found the sugar and tea. As I turned the corner, I came face to face with one of the dark-haired girls I saw in the park the other day. She’s a pretty girl, about my age.

“Pardon me,” she said and hurried along.

“No, pardon me.” I turned to watch her walk off. She peeked back nervously when she realized I was looking at her. I grinned and then she was gone.

“Did you get everything?” my mother asked. “Helena, what are you looking at?”

“Um, nothing. I was just looking for the cough drops. I think they’re in the next aisle.”

 We found the cough drops, and by the time we approached the cashier, the store had emptied a bit, so we were able to check out quickly. When we stepped out of the store, Mother asked me again what I was looking at. I told her about the dark-haired girl I had seen twice in three days. I told her what had happened at the park on Friday.

“Jews probably,” my mother said. “I don’t know any personally, but they seem polite enough. They’re just different from us and usually keep to themselves. What did she say to you?”

“Nothing. We bumped into each other coming around the corner. After she passed me I wanted to tell her how much I like her curly hair, but she hurried off too quickly.”

“But you have beautiful hair. Anyway, it’s probably best that you didn’t speak to her. Someone we know might have seen you. It’s better that they keep to themselves. This market has good prices, but I’m glad we don’t have to come here very often.”

When we arrived home, my brother, Max, was already at the apartment. As we unlocked the apartment door, he and my father were in the middle of heated argument. As soon as the door opened they stopped shouting and jumped up to help us with the grocery bags. Max kissed Mother on the cheek and, with a wink, ruffled my hair. Mother and I looked at each other, puzzled by their behavior.

“What were you talking about?” I asked.

“Nothing important,” Max said. “How was your first week of school?”

“So far so good. I have a history of ancient Rome class for first period, so that’s a good way to start the day.”

Max grinned and shook his head. He doesn’t understand my interest in ancient history either. Max is studying law. Uncle Jozef’s firm is paying his tuition in exchange for his promise to work at the firm after he graduates. Until recently, Max lived at home but with his busy schedule this year, he’s been trying to find space in the dormitories or with friends. He hasn’t found anything yet, so he’s sleeping on sofas for now. We don’t see him as often, but he promised to try to make it home for Sunday dinners.

“How are your classes this semester?” I asked.

“There is a heavy focus on contract law this semester and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Mother and I began making dinner. Father and Max were sitting in the living room listening to the news on the radio. It’s obvious that my father is upset about whatever he and Max had been discussing. I just kept my head down, focusing on the pierogies. My mother already had the roast in the oven and was working on the cheesecake.

You could cut the silence at the dinner table with a knife. Max usually talks our ears off, barely finishing his dinner before it gets cold. Tonight, nothing. After I cleared the dinner plates, my mother brought the cheesecake to the table and began slicing it.

“Okay, you two, what’s with the silent treatment?” she finally asked.

My father and Max just stared at each other and then my father blurted out, “Max is dropping out of school and joining the army.”

Max sank back in his chair.

“Why would you do something like that with all the talk of war?” Mother yelled pushing the cake across the table. “You should stay in school where it’s safe! When did you decide this? Why didn’t you discuss it with us first?”

“The war is exactly why I’m doing this,” Max said. “It’s coming, very soon, and Poland will need as many soldiers as will step up. I met with Uncle Jozef last week, and he supports my decision. I knew I couldn’t speak to you and Father about it because you would just try to talk me out of it.”

“Of course we would try to talk you out of it!” Turning to my father she asked, “Your brother knew about this and didn’t tell us?”

My father didn’t know how to respond, and we sat there in silence for a moment. Mother was beside herself. She couldn’t sit still any longer and hurried back into the kitchen, tugging at her apron, pacing. Father still hadn’t spoken.

“Max, I’m scared for you, but I think what you’re doing is a brave thing, and I support your decision,” I said. “When do you report for duty?”

He gave me a little smile and said, “Tomorrow”.

“Tomorrow?” Father yelled as he stood and also began pacing.

“Yes. Three schoolmates and I report to the training center first thing tomorrow morning. We're assigned to the infantry. Some of the other divisions require more specialized training and there just isn’t time for that.”

“Have you ever even held a gun, let alone fired one?” my father asked.

“Not since I was fourteen and I went on that hunting trip with Wlady’s family. I have to do this. We have Socialists to the west, about to invade our country, and Communists to the east who would like nothing better than take over all of Poland if they had the chance. It’s time for the Poles to stand up and fight.”

Mother turned and looked at Max, tears in her eyes. She rushed over and hugged him. “I know you’ll be a brave soldier but promise me something…if the battle can’t be won, run and hide. Do what you have to do to save yourself. We couldn’t bear to lose you.” Max had tears in his eyes and stood up to give her a huge hug. I hurried around the table to join in. Father was sitting on the sofa, clearly upset and unable to move.

“Okay, that’s enough of that,” my mother said after a moment or two, wiping her eyes. “Let’s enjoy our dessert. Michal, please open a bottle of wine. We’re sending our son off to war.”

As I lay in bed that night, I couldn’t help replaying Max’s departure in my mind. Father hugged him tighter than I’ve ever seen him hug anyone. Next Mother said goodbye and handed Max a bag of sandwiches to take with him the next day. I gave Max a huge hug. “Write to us,” I said, “or else.”

Friday, June 13, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter One

“Bye, Helena,” Wanda said.

“See you Monday, Wanda” I shouted back across the street as I opened the front door of the apartment building. I closed the door behind me and became aware of one of my favorite aromas drifting down the stairway, my mother’s cookies. I ran up the stairs, almost crashing through the apartment door in my rush to get to them. Just as I  reached for a warm cookie I hear my mother say, “No, those are for your cousin’s birthday party tomorrow.”

“Just one, please?”

“Maybe later, after you finish your homework.”

I sighed, walked into my bedroom and dropped my book bag on the floor. I know my mother will let me have a couple of cookies later but they smell so good. I want one now. Oh well. My mother’s cakes and cookies are very popular at family gatherings. As for her other cooking, not so much. She has a sense of humor about it though and we can tease her. Her mother Greta, who passed away last year, was a very good cook and baker. I guess Mother only inherited the baking skills. Before Grandma Greta died, she taught me how to make pierogies, both potato and cheese. Mother says that when I make them, she’s reminded of her mother, and it makes her smile.

As I sit on my bed looking out the window, I really want to be outside, but I know the rule: homework first. Luckily it’s Friday, and my teachers don’t hand out much homework on Fridays. I really need to finish my algebra first. It’s my least favorite subject, and if I don’t finish it first, I’ll be rushing to get it done right before class. I much prefer history, especially the ancient periods of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. Some of my friends tease me when they see me reading a history book from the library. They prefer magazines, if they read anything at all. Some, like Maria, prefer gossip and shopping to reading.

Maria and I first met when we were two years old and lived in the same apartment building. We were inseparable, running up and down the building stairs until the neighbors yelled for our parents to come get us. When we were ten years old, her father’s dry-cleaning business became successful enough for them to afford a nicer apartment. They moved several blocks closer to the park, but thankfully still close enough for Maria and I to be in the same school. We know everything about each other; there's not a single secret between us. Two weeks ago, for my sixteenth birthday, Maria gave me a beautiful blue blouse that matches my eyes. I wore it the first day back at school. I have to admit that it does complement my blue eyes and blond hair. Maria’s birthday is coming up in a few weeks, and I’m still narrowing down the list of potential gifts.

I quickly finished my homework because I know Maria and her friend Tomas are waiting for me at the café. On my way out, my mother pretended she didn’t see me snatch a cookie, but I could see the grin on her face. As I walked the few blocks to the café a cool breeze made me shiver. Summer is still hanging on, but it isn’t as warm as it was a couple of weeks ago. I’m really looking forward to autumn, my favorite time of year.

The café comes into view and I can see Maria and Tomas leaning in to whisper to one another. Maria isn’t allowed to date until she turns sixteen, so for now, as far as her parents know, she and Tomas are just friends. They have to be careful in public so their relationship won’t be discovered, but all one has to do is see them together to know that it’s more than a friendship. As they sit sipping their tea their knees touch and you can see them glance adoringly at each other.

“Sorry I’m late. My algebra homework took forever. Did I miss anything?”

“We’ve been watching that argument across the street,” Tomas said. “The driver of the car, the man in the brown suit, drove through a puddle and splashed water on the man in the hat. Mr. Jablonski, the grocer, is trying to break it up but now the man in the hat appears to be blaming Mr. Jablonski, saying that the reason the puddle is there in the first place is because he had been hosing down the sidewalk in front of the store. I don’t know what the man in the hat hopes to gain from the argument. Ah, wait, here comes a police officer.”

We're at our regular table at our favorite café, across the street from the park in the center of the town. It’s a good sized town, about eighty kilometers east of Warsaw. I’ve been to Warsaw a couple of times and found the hustle and bustle a little scary. I’m much happier here. It’s not an exciting place to live but it's not boring either. There's always something interesting to watch here in the town square. People do strange things when they think no one is watching. Others do strange things because they know people are watching. The waitress brings my tea and Maria smiles at me as I proceed to put four cubes of sugar in the cup. I like tea, but the brand they serve at this café is a little bitter for my taste.

“Look at those two ladies strolling by the big tree,” Maria says. “Don’t you just love their hats? I can’t wait until I have my own money to spend on clothes and don’t need my mother’s permission to go shopping. Two more years of school, and then I can get a job and shop with my own money.”

“What about university?” I ask. “I thought you wanted to study fashion design in Paris.”

“That was the plan until I mentioned it to my parents a few days ago. My father told me that it isn’t proper for a young woman to move that far from home without her family. He told me that he’ll allow me to take a part-time job if I want to before I marry…he’ll allow me! Doesn’t he know we’re not living in the dark ages?”

“I’m sure he’ll change his mind when he sees how talented you are. Besides, when you turn eighteen, he can’t really tell you what you can or cannot do. Then you can go to Paris.”

“Except that I need money for school.”

“True. Let’s hope he changes his mind. Tomas, I never asked what your plans are for after graduation. You’re a senior now.”

“Well,” Tomas says, “I still haven’t decided. My father wants me to follow in his footsteps and attend law school, but I’m thinking about maybe studying accounting or finance. Working with investments would be very interesting, maybe banking.”

“You can manage all of the money Maria will have when she becomes a famous fashion designer,” I joke. Maria pretends to laugh but she’s still upset about what her father said.

“Hey, who are those girls on the bench over there? The ones with the dark hair.” I ask. “I haven’t seen them at school.”

Maria and Tomas both shrug their shoulders. “I don’t remember ever seeing them before either,” Maria says.

One girl is wearing her long, dark, curls down. They're beautiful. I’ve always wished my hair had some curl to it instead of being pin-straight like my mother’s. My father’s mother, Grandma Em, has curly blond hair. The older girl appears to have more of a wave to her hair, maybe because of the length. A police officer approached them and said something to them that caused them to hurry out through the far side of the park. Strange.

We sit for a while longer watching what seems to be the entire town passing by. As the afternoon wears on, traffic gets heavier with the work-day coming to an end. Everyone seems to head home a little faster on Fridays so they can start their weekend. I looked down at my watch to see that it’s already after five and time to go home. I gave Maria a kiss on the cheek, waved goodbye to Tomas, and walked home. As I wandered down the sidewalk, I wondered again what the police officer said to the dark-haired girls to upset them. They appeared to be enjoying the pleasant Friday afternoon just as we were.

“Did you have a nice afternoon?” my mother asked. “Here, come and tell me while you wash up.”

“I just met Maria and Tomas at the café by the park. Nothing special. We were just talking and watching the goings-on.”

“So do Maria’s parents know that Tomas is more than just her friend?” my mother asks with a grin on her face.

“How did you know that?”

“I was young once. Besides, it’s very obvious. I saw them outside the school last week on that day I came to pick you up for your dentist appointment. They couldn’t take their eyes off each other.”

“You’re right,” I say, “it is obvious. Maria says that they’re in love. I don’t know about that, but they are very close. She’ll officially be allowed to date when she turns sixteen. That’s only a few weeks away, but she hasn’t decided yet if she'll tell her parents or keep it a secret.”

“Parents always find out.  She should tell them. That way they can get to know Tomas.”

The door opened and my father walked in. He put down his briefcase, placed his hat and jacket on the coat rack, and walked toward us. He managed a weak smile. “Hello sweetheart,” he said to my mother and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He kissed me on the cheek too and stroked my head.

“How was school?” he asked.

“Same as usual,” I reply.

“Is everything alright, Michal?” my mother asked.

“Yes, fine, Zofia. I’m just tired. It’s been a long week with that new client.”

“Well, dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes, so why doesn’t Helena pour you a drink and you can relax.” My mother gave me a nudge to go get his drink. “Two ice cubes," she reminded me.

My mother made broiled fish for dinner and it's actually tasty. My father jokingly thanked her for not burning it as he squeezed her hand. She smiled. My parents make an attractive couple. My father has brown hair and eyes, is average height and slender. In his three-piece suit and glasses, he looks very much like an accountant. He makes, as he says, “a comfortable living,” and I can’t remember ever being denied a reasonable request for anything. He likes to remind me that the request for a pony I made when I was eight years old was not reasonable. My mother has straight blond hair, which she usually pulls into a bun, and blue eyes. She’s a fraction shorter than my father, and she likes to joke with me that she “still has her girlish figure,” even after giving birth to my older brother, Max, and myself. I know they wanted to have more children, but there were complications when I was born, and my mother wasn’t able to get pregnant again.

“Is Max joining us tonight?” my father asked.

“No, not tonight. He has a late lecture so he told me he would spend the night on campus in a friend’s dorm room.”

After dinner I cleared the dishes from the table but my parents sat for a while, sipping their wine. I tried to be quiet because my father looks like he needs it. When I finished, I went to my room to read but I left the door open a little so I can hear what they’re talking about. I do this more often as I've gotten older and could understand what they're talking about. It remained quiet for a while and I had almost dozed off when I heard my father’s voice.

“There was a lot of talk today at work about what might happen if Poland continues to refuse to join the anti-Soviet pact. My boss has a brother who works in Berlin and he’s been hearing rumors that the Germans have run out of patience. There are a lot of worries that the Germans will attack Poland soon.”

“But won’t our army repel them?”

“Our solders will put up a good fight but they’re no match for the German air forces. I’m afraid our lives are going to change dramatically very quickly. It’s probably a good idea for you to begin stocking up on nonperishable food and find a way to store extra water. Also, we need to purchase a few gas lamps and kerosene. I’ll take care of hiding some extra money and our valuables.”

“Very well, if you think that’s best. I’ll try to explain things to Helena tomorrow before the party so she can help me.”

“What party? Oh yes, my nephew’s birthday. I need to speak with my father and brother anyway about the situation so they can prepare too.”

“Just remember that it’s a little boy’s birthday party. Don’t spoil the day with talk of war. If the rumors are true, this may be the last party for a long time.”

War! Did my mother just use the word “war”? They’re just sitting at the kitchen table, holding hands. Mother looks so sad. They were both about my age during the Great War. I remember my Grandpa Andrei telling me that some of the Germans caused trouble during the war but most minded their own business and were easier to deal with than the Russians. Maybe it won’t be as bad as my father thinks.

“Helena,” my mother calls, “come out and have a szarlotka with us.”

I love my mother’s apple tarts, especially with a glass of cold milk. Mother walked over to the radio and turned on some music. The first station she found is broadcasting classical music with a melancholy sound so she turned the tuner to find a more upbeat tune. She finally found a big-band broadcast and began tapping her foot. My father walked over, took her in his arms and they began dancing. They aren’t very good dancers, but that makes it all the more fun. I love watching them. Before I knew it, my father grabbed my hand and I was dancing. Well, sort of dancing. I’m not very coordinated. After I stepped on my father’s toes a few times, we collapsed on the sofa with my mother and laughed. We enjoy the music for a little longer and then my mother reminded me that it's time to get ready for bed. I fell asleep with an image in my head of my parents dancing.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Just a Wall, a fiction novel by Sharon Klein

As some of my friends and family know, I've been working on a couple of manuscripts, both full-length fiction novels. When my genealogy research began to slow, these stories began floating around my head and I decided to put them to paper (or whatever the digital version is called). I wanted to write something about my ancestors, but my research didn't yield enough details to fill a full-length novel. That's actually why I created this blog several years ago; so I could share shorter stories based on the information I had been able to gather. As my research slowed, my blog posts slowed, and I began developing two (for now) fictional stories with the plan to publish them.

About a year ago, my work on the manuscripts came to stop when the opportunity to purchase a new home presented itself. The manuscripts are at a point where I have to spend money on final editing, cover art, ISBNs, and even a professional photo of myself. Buying a house obviously took precedence. Since I don't know when I'll have the money to publish the manuscripts, I've decided to share the stories online for free. I enjoyed writing them, and reading them (and re-reading them), so I hope others will enjoy them as well.

Just a Wall is the first story, and I'll be posting the first chapter in a few days. Beginning in July, I'll post two chapters each month. My target audience is teens and pre-teens, with the hope that this historical fiction will inspire them to learn more about the time period about which I'm writing. I tried to include details that someone from my generation might have learned from their grandparents but is beyond the experiences of the grandparents of today's young people. I hope adults will also enjoy the novel as a "quick read." If you know someone who might also enjoy the novel, please send them a link.

Of course, I need my disclaimer. With certain exceptions, any similarity to real people and events is purely coincidental. All of the non-Jewish characters in the novel are fictional and the unnamed town in Poland where most of the story takes place is no one specific town. It is located in the region in Poland where many of my ancestors lived. Almost all of the Jewish characters are real. Some have the same name and age as the real-life person I based them on, but I've changed their fate to fit my story. Others are real in name only. They exist in different places in my family tree and I chose to honor their memory by using their names in the story. I have been careful to avoid using the names of living people.

So, I hope you enjoy the story. Please feel free to comment. I'm open to constructive criticism; in fact I welcome it. There are more stories in my head that may actually make to my keyboard someday and I'd like to learn from my early writing.

Just a Wall is dedicated to all of those people who chose to do the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Every experienced researcher knows that sometimes it's good to step back from her research, especially if she's hit a brick wall, so she can come back to it in the future with a fresh eye or when more records become available. In my case, the latter allowed me to punch through a brick wall...again.

More than four years ago, I discovered an extract from the 1897 Russian Census for my father's paternal grandmother Sarah Klein. She was born in Lomza, Poland in 1883, daughter of Abram Jdzk Zejburski and Pesza Brajna Okuniewski. This 2009 discovery also came after a break from my research on that branch of the family tree. Once I discovered this record, I was able to fill in a large portion of the Zejburski branch, including coming forward to the present and making contact with a living cousin. Unfortunately, the Okuniewski branch remained a mystery until recently. Back in 2009, a search of the JRI-Poland database resulted in only a few records for the surname Okuniewski, none of which I could tie to my family.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to take another shot at my Okuniewski research. I searched the JRI-Poland database first, because without more records, I'd really have no other place to go. To my surprise, there are now many more birth, marriage, and death records for Okuniewski in the town of Nowogrod, Poland, the town listed on the 1897 Russian Census as Pesza Brajna's place of birth. All of these records fit into my family tree. Pesza Brajna is the daughter of Jusko/Yosef Okuniewski and Sora Marja Gruszka (now I know who Sarah Klein, born Sora Marjam, was named after). I was quickly able to add thirty-five people to the family tree in both the Okuniewski and Gruszka branches, most of whom are blood relatives. Included in this total are several of my fourth and fifth great-grandparents.

As exciting as this was, I was disappointed to find that many more records are still missing. Pesza Brajna had four brothers. This is usually a good thing because it means that the family name lived on for at least one more generation. One brother died as a child, another as a young man. I don't see death records for the other two brothers, but I also don't see marriage records for them either. This means that I'm still stuck in the 19th century. I have a similar problem with the Gruszka branch...people born in the 1860s that I can't trace forward in time. I don't see any evidence that they emigrated to America, and I also don't see these surnames in the records of JewishGen's Holocaust database that can be tied back to my towns.

I'm not giving up. My patience has been rewarded several times. With the Polish State Archives records coming online with free access, I'll be able to download more records. The discoveries described above have made Sarah Klein's branch of the family tree the most populated branch in my overall family tree. This is ironic because no one in my family knows for sure when Sarah died (late 1950s in Brooklyn), or where she is buried. I guess it's time to step back...again.

Monday, March 25, 2013

In The Ghetto and In the Forest, by Iser Last

In the Ghetto and in the Forest (pages 505-511)
written by Iser Last
translated by Sharon L. Klein

The following story was written in Yiddish by Iser Last and is included in the Sefer Lukow; gehelikt der khorev gevorener kehile,The Book of Lukow; Dedicated to a Destroyed Community, published in Tel Aviv in 1968 [see for more details], pages 505-511 (missing from table of contents). Iser is my 3rd cousin, 3 times removed and I recently came into contact with his youngest son and his grandniece, both born in Israel after the war. I have translated this as best I could, without a knowledge of Yiddish, and I think I've accurately captured the details of Iser's story. Information that appears in [brackets] is not part of the original story. I have added these comments to clarify and explain some of the details mentioned by Iser.

Beginning in 1940 an order was sent by the SS to the Lukow[Łuków] Judenrat that all Jews aged 16 to 60 had to report for forced labor. If not, they would be shot along with their families.

The Judenrat appealed to the Jewish population, which along with the crowds from neighboring places now numbered 28,000 people, regarding the consequences of the German order not to flee.

One day came an order that all Jews should be at the market square at 6am. The order was carried out with the help of the Jewish Police. At 9am armed SS appeared in the market. All professionals – carpenters, locksmiths, etc – were ordered to separate. We were divided into two groups and put into two camps.

I traveled with others in overcrowded railway cars to Miedzyrzec[Międzyrzec Podlaski] and from there to Rogoźnica, 7 kilometers from Miedzyrzec. We were put in cattle stalls. The area was a German stronghold.

The next morning a fat German gave a speech to the crowds in which he explained that he had worked for 5 years in a Jewish concentration camp in Germany. If we do not perform the required work or someone tries to escape, then every last person will be shot.

The next day, the SS appointed as our leader Tsukerman, son of Nachem Tsukerman the deceased iron merchant. They divided us into two groups. We had to work from 6:30 until noon time and from 1:00 to 7:30 in the evening. We worked on a channel to connect the Bug with the Visla [two important rivers in Poland]. Some of this work had already been done by Polish criminals. While working, we were guarded by Nazis and young SS with machine guns. Small deviations from the work, even scratching one’s shoulder, could get someone shot. Those who were shot were Akiva the butcher’s son, Leibel the grandson of Tentser, and Yosef Becker, son of Kon the butcher shop owner.

The majority of the workers in the camp were from around Lukow. My brother Leybl and I, along with our children, were assigned to work with the Polish engineers so, therefore, we found ourselves not in camp but at another work location. We mainly worked with tools. Each day they took 30 Jews to work. Many times, when the group would arrive at work, the leader Tsukerman would quietly say to me, “Iser, we have 10 who are sick” or “We have in the group 5 devout Jews and a Hasidic rabbi.” Whenever we had the chance we would try to make their work easier because resting was not an option. And so we kept watch over them.

The camp was liquidated during the winter of 1941. The Germans have probably worked out a plan to finish off the Jews. After the liquidation of the camp, I returned to my home in Zalesie.

The number of Jews was increasing and the Germans issued orders for them to work. Every gentile in the village had the right to request Jewish workers from the labor office. From other Polish cities and towns came 42 Jewish boys and girls. I found out from the gentiles I know that they may legally employ these boys and girls. This was the situation until Pesach 1942.

On the morning after Pesach, we heard that Ryki was “Judenrein” – that all of the Jews were gone. They were sent to Treblinka but at that time we did not know about Treblinka and other death camps.

Kopel the baker paid a Lukow train worker to find out where the Jews of Ryki were taken a few days earlier. The train worker said that the Jews were taken to a death camp. Thus we discovered that the Jews of various cities and towns were not carried “off to work” as reported in the Minsk newspaper and as we had earlier believed but, were in fact, sent to Treblinka and other death camps.

The Jews of Lukow had been lucky, more or less. The Jews celebrated the Simchat Torah even though they had bad premonitions. After 6 nights the destruction squads came to Lukow, a beastly force to wipe out the Jews. An aktion was conducted by a branch of the SS. Next they went to Radzyn[Radzyń Podlaski] but the Gestapo had already removed all of the Jews there. 3 days later they returned to Lukow and surrounded the city. German SS, Ukrainians and Latvians were posted all around the border.

From every direction one could hear the murderers’ gunfire, in the houses, in the street. There was terrible chaos. Over a loud speaker it was ordered in Yiddish that all Jews had to report to a designated place. Everyone had to be there by 11am. In the panic of the gunfire, Jews grabbed their children and ran to the designated place. Many were shot because they were not in market square on time.

In the market square the Jews were ordered to lie face down so they could not look their murderers in the eyes. Meantime, non-Jews, police, SS, Ukrainians spread throughout the town. They went into houses and searched the floors, walls, ovens. If they found a Jew hiding, they shot them on the spot.

During the night the Jews in the market square were ordered to stand. Older people were led off to the side and shot. Other Jews were taken across the fields and led to the train station which was lit by reflective lamps.

After terrible beatings, the Jews were transported by railway cars to their final destination where they were machine gunned from the roof of the railway cars.


Here is the story of my brother-in-law Beniamin Gastman.

In the garden he prepared two bunkers. Gastman, his wife [Sura, nee Last] and son [Josef], along with several others, hid in one bunker while his daughter [Dwora Ruchle] hid in the second bunker. He divided the family intentionally so if one bunker was found, someone from the family would survive.

On the day of the aktion, Beniamin left his bunker to see if the second bunker was secure. When he saw that the second bunker had been discovered and his daughter was gone he ran to the train station to see if he could save her. A Lukower Gestapo who was drunk told him that the trains were sent to Germany.

At the train station, Beniamin found many people sitting on the ground near ramps, guarded by SS. He saw his daughter and asked the SS guard if he could take her, to save her. He decided that he would save his daughter from the railway car. Beniamin brought with him a tool used to cut iron. As soon as the train began to move he began cutting 2 openings in the car window. First to come through the opening was his daughter. She was so happy to be alive. He no longer leapt with joy though. He had broken his leg and was wounded by a bullet. As they left, many other young people also made their way out of the railway car.

Beniamin crawled on his stomach to a Polish cabin. A well-known farmer lived there and he let them stay. Early in the morning, the farmer was arrested by the Gestapo. They charged him with operating a school where some Jews worked sorting items that were left after other the Jews surrendered. Among them was Amil Gastman, Beniamin’s nephew. When he saw his uncle in the farmer's cart, he gave the farmer all the money that he had in order to save his uncle but the SS soldier shot Beniamin and ordered the farmer to take him to the Jewish cemetery.

Beniamin’s wife, my sister Sura, along with her children, including the daughter who jumped from the railway car, remained hidden until the last aktion in May 1943. During the aktion they were discovered in the bunker on Kanalave Street and were taken to the city hall where they were killed with many other Jews.


After the first aktion, notice was issued that all who had been hiding in bunkers should come to city hall where they will be “pardoned”. A ghetto will be formed again for all except Jewish workers. Many of the Jews didn’t have much energy after being in hiding and lying around but they decided to go the city hall to confirm what was happening. There they saw the person who issues the pardons. 30 Jews were exempted and sent back to the ghetto. When the others who had hidden in the bunkers and other places were captured, they were brought to city hall. Thus 640 Jews were again in the hands of the murderers. Guarded by the SS with no chance to slip away they were taken to where large graves had been dug. Everyone was ordered to undress and then they were shot. Among those killed were my brother [possibly Chaim Eli Last] and his family.

I told my daughter what had happened. She hid as a Pole in Malcanów, as a Christian girl. The gentiles had seen too many Jews killed and decided it was time to save some. My daughter found a place among these gentiles after telling them what had been happening.

The other survivors in my family managed to escape into the forest. The peasants in the village were told that they would receive 3 kilograms of sugar for each Jew they capture [3kg is approx. 6.6lbs...the value of a human life apparently]. Many gentiles went into the woods hunting for Jews. They found our shelter in the forest and reported it to the Lukow Gestapo. They were held for several days without food and drink and then they were shot.

Among my family members were 2 daughters and 2 sons, a daughter of my brother, and 3 sons of another brother. On that unfortunate evening I was away searching for food. The next evening when I returned, I immediately realized the tragedy. A Pole had warned me that something terrible had happened. I ran around desperately, not knowing where to go. Meanwhile, I found 2 of my brother’s children and together we mourned our loss.

We built a bunker in a field and stayed there until the evening before Purim 1943. Once at night we went to a local Pole to ask for bread. He suggested that we go back to the ghetto because our shelter was located in a field that would be plowed soon and it would be discovered.

On May 2 we went out looking for food and stopped at the old bunker where we still had some clothing. When we climbed down into the bunker we were surprised to see my son Tzvi and my brother’s son. We were overwhelmed with joy. We were nevertheless certain that some of the other children had been killed during the aktion at city hall. We heard that they tried to run from the murderers’ bullets. I was very proud when my son said, “Father, we will fight with all of our power to survive.”

In 1943, on the evening of Purim, we all (my brother Leybl and his 9[correction, 15] year-old daughter Yosefa, my brother’s sons, and my son and I) went back to the Lukow ghetto. There we were reminded of Pesach…they had succeeded in making Lukow “Judenrein”. So we went back to the forest.

It was a constant battle against fear for our lives with the threat of death around every corner.

On July 9, 1944 came unexpected aid. The night before we were going searching for food, we found out that tomorrow we would be liberated. The Russians were all around Lukow and Siedlce, while the Germans were still holding Brisk.

Now liberated, we returned to Lukow but neither the Jews nor the Poles knew what was happening. The city was destroyed. We were fearful that the Germans would return to Lukow so we left the city, following the Russians. We were hiding in a field near Radzyn when we found out that the Germans had finally been driven off. We returned to Lukow and found some Jewish families there.

Our small, ragged group of Jews gathered in the empty house of Gutsze Ryback. The ground was burning beneath our feet…there were Jews buried beneath us. After a while we found 2 dead bodies: a son of Joshua Prater and another Jew from Adamów. They were killed just beyond the gate.

After the creation of the Jewish State, many young Jewish people were drafted into the Israeli Army to defend the liberation. My son Tzvi joined the army and was killed in Jerusalem, in the defense of Mount Zion.